Youth voices rising at international meeting in New York

Half the world’s population is under the age of 25. At 1.8 billion, this is the largest youth population in history, and here at the UN Commission on Population and Development, says Amnesty’s Sarah Atkinson, youth from around the world are standing up to world leaders, demanding that they be heard.

It’s been 20 years since the Cairo agreement on population and development saw the world shift its focus to people, their dignity and their rights – away from statistics. This week, we are at the UN in New York to see how far the world has come in making that a reality.

The atmosphere is electric, focused and tense. There’s a rising tide of conservatism, driven by some groups and states who want to roll back the rights agreed in Cairo, particularly regarding gender equality and sexual and reproductive health and rights.

But there is a fierce determination – both by UN Member States and civil society – to resist these forces and strengthen progress for everyone’s human rights, and their choices over their bodies and their lives. People are calling this a historic moment.

Expectations are high for a strong outcome to be adopted at the UN this week – will we as a global community commit to concrete steps to advance gender equality and fulfil young people’s rights? Without this, true progress in world development will not be possible.

Calls for change ring out

Young people’s calls for change are ringing out clearly. This is a source of strength, hope and excitement during the conference – young people themselves are advocating for their rights and those of their generation.

“Twenty years beyond Cairo, it’s unacceptable for young people’s sexual and reproductive health and rights to be deemed ‘too controversial’,” said Nur Hidayati Handayani from Indonesia, a member of the Youth Caucus (a body made up of youth representatives from countries and organizations around the world).

As a result of statements like hers, UN member states have made many positive references, echoing young people’s calls for gender equality, women and girls’ empowerment, comprehensive sexuality education, youth friendly services, sexual rights and the participation of young people in the policies and decisions that affect their lives.

Sabrina Frydman, a youth activist from Argentina spoke on behalf of Amnesty International. “There are countries in which even today young women and adolescents who were raped are forced to marry their rapist or have no choice but to carry on with unwanted pregnancies. Millions of girls and adolescents are subjected to female genital mutilation and child marriage,” she said.

“Where our rights are violated, we often cannot access justice, especially those young people from marginalized communities. Governments around the world are failing us, and are not fulfilling their obligations to respect, protect and fulfil all our human rights.”

Petition backed by 280,000

The UN Special Envoy on Youth Ahmad Alhendawi committed to take on young people’s concerns about Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights as his mandate. In his speech to UN Member states he said: “Just yesterday a group of youth delegates present here handed to me a petition outlining their call for protecting human rights and dignity.”

He went on to emphasise the Youth Caucus’ calls for comprehensive sexuality education, youth-friendly health services and youth participation in decision-making that affects their lives.

Glued to smartphones

The Youth Caucus has been the beating heart at the centre of the UN this week. Warm smiles and high spirits are coupled with in-depth policy knowledge and negotiating prowess. These young people can’t wait to be stuck in a lift with a diplomat.

Youth representatives speak at events, and provide compelling arguments backing up their calls. They mobilize quickly. Glued to smartphones and laptops, they send out a steady stream of tweets.

Addressing issues of cultural relativism and sovereignty, Dareen from the from the 

States are lucky to have these experts around them, full of experience and willingness to find solutions. This is so much more than the ‘energetic and creative activism’ young people are normally associated with and called upon by NGOs to do – this is young people influencing world decisions at the highest levels, on their own terms.

As Sara Vida Coumans from YCSRR said in her blog: “As young people, we not only make up almost half of the world’s population, we are also rights holders and those rights cannot be ignored. It’s time for governments to guarantee our sexual and reproductive rights, today and into the post-2015 agenda.”